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Oahu's North Shore Scene

Coliena Rentmeester Gearing up for a day of surfing in Oahu.

Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

Hawaii's North Shore is floating CinemaScope, Beach Blanket Bingo crossed with The Truman Show, an eerie landscape where everyone is living out a curious life movie. For haole—vintage slang for visitors from the mainland—it's one big Surf Land dude ranch. At plush Turtle Bay Resort, guests take lessons at the Hans Hedemann Surf School, no doubt channeling an interior dreamscape that embraces hotdoggers and scrappy wahines from Gidget, The Endless Summer, Riding Giants, Step into Liquid, and Baywatch, with Lost and such reality TV fare as (what else?) Boarding House: North Shore the most recent additions to the psychic equation. Nothing on the North Shore feels quite real, as if Elvis Presley, whose old rental mansion remains a testament to his Blue Hawaii period, might appear at any moment and start warbling away to some moonstruck secretary.

Since the halcyon era of the fifties, when a handful of madcap California surfers drove north from Waikiki to stoke themselves silly on their quaint long boards, the world's coolest village has been in the business of myth, churning out visions of paradise. This 26-mile stretch of beach and the surrounding hills—called the country on Oahu—does have very real surf breaks: Hammerheads (named after a nearby shark breeding ground), Himalayas, Avalanche, Marijuana's, Banzai Pipeline, Gas Chambers. In season, from October through March, truly monstrous waves—with faces up to 25 feet tall—turn the North Shore into the mecca of surfing, which pretty much means it also becomes a stomping ground for international pop culture.

For all practical purposes, the North Shore extends from the Mormon Temple in Laie—most of Laie is owned by Mormons, an influence reflected in a video store with a sanitized version of Sideways ( "Just a few swear words and a bit of nudity," says a clerk. "You hardly notice the difference")—to the wild vastness of Kaena Point. Haleiwa, a Christian outpost in the 1800's, is the official entertainment center of the North Shore. It's home to assorted surf stores; Celestial Natural Foods and Billy's Barber Shop; slaphappy teenage testosterone in SMILE UGLY T-shirts cruising aimlessly in jacked-up trucks; the down-home Café Haleiwa; and the forever packed Matsumoto Shave Ice, complete with day-tripping Japanese tour groups and glossies of Adam Sandler on the wall. At Haleiwa Joe's (immortalized in The Big Bounce, with Owen Wilson), middle-aged barflies watch competitive surfing on television and rail against the showboating of young surfers.

Haleiwa has one true Old Hawaii hangout, the Manu O Ke Kai Canoe Club, full of outrigger canoes and the feeling of being a long way from regular Joe America. Naturally, this unpretentious gem, an authentic hole in the wall, has been discovered by the fashion industry, and one afternoon, bikini and surf gear shoots were going on simultaneously. The 25-year-old "lifestyle surfer" Jamie Sterling was on the job, talking about the progression from grom (surfer kid) to cult star with the casual self-consciousness that comes from having been raised in America's grooviest beach town. On the North Shore, schools are filled with a bewildering array of students—white kids whose roots go back to the mainland, native Hawaiians, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipinos, Mormons, Buddhists, Samoans—who speak an impenetrable language, a cross between hip-hop and rhyming slang: brah for friend, da grinds for food. Boards are brought to school, and when the bell rings, the rainbow tribe heads out to the beach.

Since Sterling competes sporadically, he's free to travel the world in an endless quest for epic waves, sponsored by magazines, documentaries, and corporations. As with any other model, the more editorial pages he has in magazines, the more valuable a marketing commodity he becomes. For Sterling, life has taken a curious turn: "I started getting paid to surf in my junior year, but in high school, football players got all the girls—surfers are no big deal here," he says. In fact, surfing is just part of the landscape to natives, as ordinary as golf or tennis is in, say, Scarsdale, New York. Wholesome suburban families, from Grandma on down, will emerge from a minivan with their boards at Waimea Bay, updating the whole Beach Boys "Surfin' USA" number. Churches use surfboards as signs (LOVE GOD), and locals like real estate agent Don Darnell meet prospective clients while paddling out to waves.

Ultimately, the North Shore gestalt is about the great surf breaks of Sunset Beach—about eight miles north of Haleiwa—and the 15,000 or so year-round residents who cling to Kamehameha Highway, forming a community without a real name, town center, or anything to do after 9 p.m. (Surfers wake up early for the "dawn patrol," beating the crowds on prime surf days.) I traveled to the North Shore from my hometown of Miami—another tropical frontier that is part of America in only the broadest conceptual sense—and Sunset Beach came as a wistful lesson in what Miami Beach could have been if towering condominiums hadn't devoured the culture of the street. Sunset Beach is a miraculous place, the most organic, pedestrian-friendly, and resolutely democratic town imaginable. America has become a land of gated communities, but Sunset Beach proves that every socioeconomic class can play nicely with others, though many North Shore natives resent that they can't afford beach houses anymore. (A 1,166-square-foot beach house that went for $750,000 in 2000 would now, according to various brokers, sell for $3 million or more.)

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